Understanding How the Brain Works in Relation to Safety – What Do you need to know?


As experts in human performance, we are often approached by leaders around the world seeking to unlock the full potential of their workforce. When asked about their organizational challenges, leaders are often puzzled when they have an incident that results from someone missing something obvious or when their best performer suddenly makes a grave mistake resulting in a serious injury or fatality. Despite experiencing some helpful gains and occasional achievement of low safety incident rates, leaders notice continuing challenges that have them asking questions such as:

  • Are there activities that support human performance reliability with regard to safety?
  • Are there solutions to overcome Brain-Centered Hazards™ (e.g., fatigue, distraction, habits) in the workplace?
  • Why have our incident rates plateaued despite our continued focus on safety?
  • Why do human performance tools like procedures, job briefings, pause work authority, and Take 5’s not always work as intended?

So, as a leader, what do you need to know about the human brain in relation to safety? Neuroscience brings new understanding of the workings of the human brain. Are you aware there are regions of the brain which contribute to certain behaviors? For instance, the Fast Brain is the pre-conscious, habit-driven part of the brain which drives most of our behavior. The Slow Brain, on the other hand, is the more deliberate and intentional part of the brain responsible for accurate problem identification, reasoning, planning, and decision making. The implications on our safety are that, on average, 45%-50% of our actions in the span of a day are repetitive routine ones and are controlled and executed in the Fast Brain without thinking or conscious decision-making. Furthermore, the brain leaps at the chance to conserve valuable energy by defaulting to reactive, reflexive actions based on habit. Conversely, the Slow Brain must be intentionally activated to spur conscious cognition. For this reason, it is critical that as part of the embedded approach, individual capabilities be built so they learn to recognize the hazards of operating in the Fast Brain. However, is that enough?

In many situations demanding thoughtful and reasoned action, research now indicates the brain is not designed for modern, technology-driven operations. While we cannot change the way our brains work, we can change the way our organizations work with our brains. Extensive research in the field of neuroscience shows organizations that include effective layers of protection can and do experience remarkable advances in safety performance. Effective organizational layers of protection include having a systematic approach whereby there is:

  1. Organizational alignment on how risk is prioritized, identified, tolerated and accepted
  2. Brain-aligned operational systems - e.g., engineering out risk during equipment, facility, process design, and job planning with the human brain in mind
  3. An adequately built individual and team reliability competence highlighting awareness on the inner workings of the human brain and how individuals make decisions.

This type of embedded systems approach is necessary for successful human error risk mitigation. Having human error prevention as part of proactive activities --such as reviewing jobs for reliability-- will foster deep learning through performance-focused root cause analysis. This type of approach challenges traditional thinking and goes beyond identifying ‘human error as a cause’. The intent is to create systems designed to avoid human error traps as well as policies and procedures which will trigger thought before action.

Therefore, the time has come to re-examine your systems, processes, and procedures, to isolate the newly-identified Brain-Centered Hazards, and to initiate solutions encouraging intentional actions, eliminating reflexive risk, and enabling employees to respond to all operating conditions with Right-First-Time performance. If you are interested in learning more about the benefits of having “layers of protection” approach, do not miss out on the opportunity to hear from industry experts at the DEKRA Safety in Action® Leadership Summit on April 3, 2019, in Nashville, TN. Learn more here.

Author- Dr. Rajni Walia

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